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The Spontaneous Combustion of Matilda Rooney – Christmas Candle

Imagine you're sitting in your favorite chair. Alcoholic beverage in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. You belch, burp, and gurgle. The gas won't stop. Your throat burns like you just got done scarfing down a Carolina Reaper.

The burning pushes its way up and out of your mouth in a great gout of flame. For a brief instant you imagine that you are transforming into a dragon. Unfortunately, the fire burns your Khaleesi dreams and your lips to ash.

Soon the fire consumes your whole body. Nothing is left but a pile of ash on your lightly singed couch. You just fell victim to the mysterious phenomenon of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

That's exactly what happened to Matilda Rooney, on Christmas Eve 1885.

Matilda Rooney Gets Hot Under the Collar

Patrick and Matilda Rooney lived on a farm in Seneca, Illinois (USA). John Larson worked on the elderly couple's farm as a farmhand. They invited him to spend Christmas at their house.

After spending the night drinking and feasting, John Larson went to bed. He left Matilda and Patrick on the first floor, and went to sleep in the guest bedroom on the second floor.

Late that night, John woke to a coughing fit. Something was irritating his throat, but not enough to convince the man to rise from his drunken slumber. He woke the next morning to a powerful hangover, and smears of soot on his pillow.

John left the guest bedroom in search of the Rooneys. He soon found Patrick Rooney dead in the master bedroom. This was turning out to be a terrible Christmas morning.

Larson went in search of Matilda Rooney. He found only a blackened hole burned into the kitchen floor. Within the hole was 12 pounds (5.44 kg) of ash, and a human foot.

The kitchen was undamaged by the fire that consumed Matilda. John Larson called the Seneca authorities, who rushed to the scene. Police suspected John of the murder. They estimated that the fire must have burned at 2500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,371.11 °C) to reduce Matilda's body to ash.

When they inspected the scene, they determined that he would have been unable to light a fire that would consume Matilda and not the surrounding kitchen. They brought in a doctor.

The doctor determined that the ash was the mortal remains of Matilda Rooney. He theorized that Matilda had spontaneously combusted after consuming too much alcohol.

John Larson was cleared of suspicion. Matilda's case of spontaneous human combustion gave rise to a local legend. They say that she was punished by God for daring to imbibe heavily on Christmas Eve.

Spontaneous Human Combustion – It Could Happen to You

Obviously there has to be some logical reason for this sort of thing. People don't just catch fire for no reason, do they?

I hate to break it to you, but there's science behind this madness. They call it the Wick Effect, and it's almost as weird as people magically combusting.

Basically, where there's fire, there's fuel. The fuel for cases of spontaneous human combustion is human fat. Ignition comes from a lit cigarette, electrical short, or some other mundane source.

The cigarette ignites your clothes, which ignite the slow-burning fat that all human carry around. This produces a yellow flame that rapidly consumes the body, leaving the feet behind because humans rarely have fat reserves there. Melting fat gets soaked up by your clothes, which turn you into a human candle.

Another hallmark of spontaneous human combustion is the greasy sludge that gets stuck to walls around the victim.

John DeHaan, Ph.D., conducted several experiments to test his hypothesis. What he found was that a fire fueled by human fat doesn't necessarily release enough heat to ignite surrounding objects.

Inebriation is a common hallmark of spontaneous human combustion, not because the alcohol causes your body to explode, but because it makes you sleepy. Turns out getting blackout drunk can also make you less responsive to danger or pain. Who would have known?



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